08 September, 2006

Reflections on Nighthawks: How My Narrative Came About

This posting describes my process of producing the narrative you can see on "myspace" about the painting by Hopper. You are invited to read the narrative (click here) then return to this blog and see how it came about. A quick disclaimer: There are writers who happen to be teachers; I am not one of those. Quite the contrary: I happen to be a teacher who writes. So as I share my writing with you, I make no pretense that my writing is professional. I intend my writing as a model for you to consider, nothing more.

I began the process in my office in the Gee building. I was working back and forth between my laptop which has more efficient internet access and the desktop computer where I work within the campus network. I started drafting in the "myspace.com" site, but I was finding that some of the information I was keying in was getting lost. After composing about a 10-15 lines, I decided this process of having to type and retype was too frustrating. So I copied what I had started and logged into the Blackboard where I could work in s similar online environment, but where I believed I had more security about maintaining my information.

The first line of the narrative game very quickly to me. And one of the reasons for this opening line was to create the oppotunity to play visually with the text. As the first line was being drafted, I was already planning on options for using color within the text. I didn't know where the opportunities would arise, but I was certainly planning on trying to incorporate more color as I was drafting.

Another reason, besides the opportunity to play with color that the first line came out the way it did was the reaction I've had to the painting. The colors of Hopper's painting had tended to create a sober, somber reaction within me. The colors, in my mind, suggested "the blues." When I first started drafting, I had in mind--along with this color option--a vague notion that I would narrate the story within the style of film noir. That was the reason I had the woman talk first and also the reason she indicated her saddness--perhaps baiting the man to engage in a conversation and, perhaps, baiting him into something more dangerous: a standard exposition trick in film noir.

A third reason this line came very quickly had to do with the characterizations that were forming in my mind. Since the painting was set in the 1940s, I wanted to find language that would have been appropriate--as best as I can guess from films I've seen--for that period.

The next few lines began to evolve rather quickly. I was listening to music through my "Launchcast" radio and I had also decided that besides color, I would play with the idea of the characters' being in a painting. That's how the dialog in the first several lines began to evolve. I wanted to create an impression that the woman was from Smallville, USA, and had come to the city for work. This idea was consistent with the painting, both because of the war and because of the shift in the economy from agriculture to manufacturing. During the first four decades of the 20th century , thousands of people streamed to urban areas looking for work and this historical event is part of the "broader" context I could exploit in my narrative.

And that economic and social context played well to my ideas about the painting. Many people in the 1930s and 1940s came to larger cities with the dream of being "discovered" for the movies. Randolph Scott, for example, grew up in Charlotte, NC, and made his way to California and into pictures. So the woman's dream of coming to the city and getting into pictures worked twofold for me:

  • This mobility was consistent with the time and the character as I saw her.
  • This desire for being in film allowed me the opporunity to play with the idea of her wanting to be in "pictures"--which was the pun I wanted to exploit.

As this set up happened, I was also working on my desktop computer answering email and I also stopped to attend a couple of meetings and to meet with students who came by the office. When I as able to turn more focused attention to my narrative, I saw that the drive for being in pictures had become more than a either a character driven event or my wanting to pun the idea. An emerging idea for her motivation was her desire for immortality. As I reread my draft and noticed the potential for this theme, I had an idea about the male character sitting beside the woman. What if he was immortal and was saddened by the idea of living forever? Could this tension be my conflict for this narrative?

This theme of the problem of immortality is deeply seated in Western literature. If nothing else, part of what drives the vampire legend is that these creatures live forever and are nearly tragic in their saddness about living forever. See, for example, Klaus Kinski as Nosferatu or the film version of Interview with a Vampire where this theme is clearly explored.

The immortality theme had come to mind before a meeting and I was trying to recall a Greek myth where a mortal man married a goddess just prior to having to leave. I could remember that a goddess asked Zeus for the gift of immortality for her lover/husband. The wish was granted; however, there is a difference between living forever and eternal youth! Her lover grew older and older, but he could not die. I thought that this tension might play well from the man's point of view, but I wanted to review the myth. I couldn't find specifics before I had to go to a meeting.

As I left for my meeting, I stopped by the office of my colleague, Rebecca Beittel, and I asked her if she knew of the myth and the characters. By finding the characters from the myth, I thought I might be able to give the characters in the painting names. Rebecca didn't know off the top of her head, but she thought she could find it. Sure enough, when I got back from the meeting, I had an email that the myth was about Tithonus (the human lover) and Eos (the goddess of the dawn--and named as "Aurora" by some writers).

I quickly did some revision on my draft. For example, I reworked the earlier part where the woman is able to refer to herself by a specific name ("Dawn"). At the same time I was making some of the revisions, I "googled" the myth of Tithonus (this link is to an engraving) to see if there were any alternative names or spelling of "Tithonus" so I could better create a name for the male companion in the painting. And I found a curious hit on Google: there was an X-files episode called "Tithonus"! This find was great fun! Now I had to make sure that the female character--"Dawn"--was red-haired, like Dana (really close to "Dawn" in terms of the spelling of the name) Scully. And luck would have it: Hopper's woman is red-haired. Therefore, I was able to add a little more to the dialog from the googling on "Tithonus" as well as listening to "Launchcast (the card reader at the fair, Mrs. Rita, came into my narrative since I heard the song from the Gin Blossoms, "Mrs. Rita," while I was composing).

Not only did I find a summary of the X-files episode, I also found the script! This find was too good to pass up, so I quickly scanned through the script to see if there were any ideas I could rob for my narrative. Like most of us today in postmodernist America, we find it very easy to build allusion from classical Greece and from popular art at the same time. And indeed, there in the script was some dialog between the "Tithonus" character and Dana Scully that I could exploit in my narrative.

At this point, I was nearing a time to end my allotted time for composing my narrative. At the same time I saw my time was running short, the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young song,"Deja Vu," played on my radio station. The openning verse says:

If I had ever been here before I would probably know just what to do
Don't you?
If I had ever been here before on another time around the wheel
I would probably know just how to deal
With all of you.
And I feel
Like I've been here before
Like I've been here before
And you know
It makes me wonder
What's going on . . . .

These lyrics helped me decide where I would go with the narrative--in a circle! The "deja vu" theme, the idea of immortality--and no death, and the idea of some art critics that the characters in the painting are "trapped" (e.g. these critics note that no door is visible for entrance or exit) all converged at this point in my narrative. I went back to the beginning of the narrative and recast the first sentence a little bit and then allowed the dialog toward the end of my draft to develop so I could have the narrative end with the exact same line that openned the narrative. I intentionally "closed the circle" of the narrative to represent the endlessness of the male character's "immortality" and captured (yes, I intended this pun, too, in good "postmodernist" mode)--I hope--the art critics' ideas about the enclosed or trapped nature of the characters in this painting.

I did one more read through of the draft and tried to play with the male character's name. I couldn't just call him "Tithonus" since that would not work at all. I tried earlier to find varient spellings--which is typical of some ancient Greek names. But I had not been lucky there. I also tried anagrams--rearranging the letters of the name to make another name, such as how George Herbert, the metaphysical poet, played with the letters in "Mary" (the mother of Jesus) and "Army" for one his poems. "Tithonus" resisted any manipulation of letters. I thought about using initials and eventually experimented with T.I Thonus--but the last name just didn't work for an American sounding name. Then, as I looked at the name, I was taken how much "Thonus" looked like "Thomas." And my problem was solved.

I ran a spell check through the Blackboard word processor function. I fixed any typos that the word processor found and I checked my own writing one more time. This process was happening in the late afternoon and I finally copied and pasted it into the "myspace" site. I am including below two last bits of information for you:

  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the poet laureate of Victorian England published a poem called "Tithonus"
  • In my research, I found a recent discovery of a version of the poem by Sappho, the great Greek poet from the island of Lesbos. Her version of this myth is also reproduced for you below.

Tithonus by Alfred Lord Tennyson

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapors weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms, [here, note "thine" refers to the goddess, Eos]
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-hair'd shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East,
Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.
Alas! for this gray shadow, once a man--
So glorious in his beauty and thy choice,
Who madest him thy chosen, that he seem'd
To his great heart none other than a God!
I ask'd thee, `Give me immortality.' [Tennyson sees the mistake of the request on Tithonus' asking, not on the part of the goddess]
Then didst thou grant mine asking with a smile,
Like wealthy men who care not how they give.
But thy strong
Hours indignant work'd their wills,
And beat me down and marr'd and wasted me,
And tho' they could not end me, left me maim'd
To dwell in presence of immortal youth,
Immortal age beside immortal youth,
And all I was, in ashes.
Can thy love,
Thy beauty, make amends, tho' even now,
Close over us, the silver star, thy guide,
Shines in those tremulous eyes that fill with tears
To hear me? [the legend has Tithonus growing so old, his only sound is like the rasp of the grasshopper]
Let me go: take back thy gift:
Why should a man desire in any way
To vary from the kindly race of men,
Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance
Where all should pause, as is most meet for all?
A soft air fans the cloud apart; there comes
A glimpse of that dark world where I was born.
Once more the old mysterious glimmer steals
From thy pure brows, and from thy shoulders pure,
And bosom beating with a heart renew'd.
Thy cheek begins to redden thro' the gloom, [note this reference to the physical arrival of dawn]
Thy sweet eyes brighten slowly close to mine,
Ere yet they blind the stars, and the wild team
Which love thee, yearning for thy yoke, arise,
And shake the darkness from their loosen'd manes,
And beat the twilight into flakes of fire.
Lo! ever thus thou growest beautiful
In silence, then before thine answer given
Departest, and thy tears are on my cheek.
Why wilt thou ever scare me with thy tears,
And make me tremble lest a saying learnt,
In days far-off, on that dark earth, be true?
`The Gods themselves cannot recall their gifts.'
Ay me! ay me! with what another heart
In days far-off, and with what other eyes
I used to watch--if I be he that watch'd--
The lucid outline forming round thee; saw
The dim curls kindle into sunny rings;
Changed with thy mystic change, and felt my blood
Glow with the glow that slowly crimson'd all
Thy presence and thy portals, while I lay,
Mouth, forehead, eyelids, growing dewy-warm
With kisses balmier than half-opening buds
Of April, and could hear the lips that kiss'd
Whispering I knew not what of wild and sweet,
Like that strange song I heard Apollo sing,
While Ilion like a mist rose into towers.
Yet hold me not for ever in thine East:
How can my nature longer mix with thine?
Coldly thy rosy shadows bathe me, cold
Are all thy lights, and cold my wrinkled feet
Upon thy glimmering thresholds, when the steam
Floats up from those dim fields about the homes
Of happy men that have the power to die,
And grassy barrows of the happier dead.
Release me, and restore me to the ground;
Thou seest all things, thou wilt see my grave:
Thou wilt renew thy beauty morn by morn;
I earth in earth forget these empty courts,
And thee returning on thy silver wheels.

Sappho's Fourth Poem

"[You for] the fragrant-blossomed Muses' lovely gifts [be zealous,] girls, [and the] clear melodious lyre:
[but my once tender] body old age now [has seized;] my hair's turned [white] instead of dark;
my heart's grown heavy, my knees will not support me,
that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns.
This state I oft bemoan; but what's to do?
Not to grow old, being human, there's no way.
Tithonus once, the tale was, rose-armed Dawn,
love-smitten, carried off to the world's end,
handsome and young then, yet in time
grey age o'ertook him, husband of immortal wife."

Lastly, consider these links for fun: